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Interview: Vicki Hendricks, Author

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Many noir or crime novels start right off with the dastardly deed. Frequently, there’s a dead body, or a strategy for robbing a bank, within the first twenty pages. Vicki Hendricks, however, manages to draw the reader in long before there’s ever any criminal activity. The author of Miami Purity, Iguana Love, Voluntary Madness, and Sky Blues, Hendricks is more interested in playing with psychology than devising convoluted criminal plots. But just as very little is off limits in her real life (she’s an avid skydiver, she scuba dives, rockclimbs, sails, and goes dogsledding), nothing is off limits in her fiction either so murder and mayhem does eventually become part of the picture. Which often means her work ends up being categorized as crime or noir fiction.

Ms. Hendricks was kind enough to talk to us about her admiration of Ernest Hemingway, writing sex scenes, and fending off poisonous snakes in the Amazon while awaiting a book deal.

Slushpile: You have written about your fascination with Ernest Hemingway and the influence his work has had on your life. How did you first discover Papa’s writings?

Hendricks: I almost bought the Thomasville Hemingway bed! But after thinking over the price, I got some animal print pillows instead, and took a trip to Finland to go dogsledding with the money I saved. (Calvin Trillin’s Rule of Compensatory Economics.) I discovered Hemingway in the normal way, high school reading. I used to sneak into a literature class when I was supposed to be in study hall, so it’s obvious what kind of geek I was. I finished most of the classics in high school, and even though I didn’t understand a lot, it was a good thing. In college I started hanging out with guys and drinking, and my reading time was cut way back. This is ridiculous, but I was consciously creating a Hemingway persona for myself, trying to be a writer without writing anything. You have to live if you want to write! Makes a good excuse.

Slushpile: Hemingway is almost as famous for his personality and adventures as he is for his writing. Maybe more so. There’s a reason why Thomasville Furniture released a line called “The Ernest Hemingway Collection” rather than “The Anton Chekov Collection.” Clearly, Hemingway’s persona and exploits have a large place in our culture. What contemporary author do you think is Hemingway’s heir in having a larger-than-life personality?

Hendricks: With the level of communication now, it’s tough to stand out as “larger than life.” However, both Pam Houston and Randy Wayne White have more than dabbled in the Hemingway lifestyle. Pam was a white water rafting guide for years and Randy was a fishing charter captain. They both branched out into other types of adventure and wrote great collections of essays. Of course, Pam and Randy don’t skydive, and Hemingway never skydived, because it wasn’t possible as a sport in his day, so I’ve got them all beat.

Slushpile: Who were some of your other favorite authors in your formative years?

Hendricks: I’m still in my formative years really. I read everything when I was a kid, and had no particular taste. If it had print, I liked it… shampoo bottles! If it said “classic,” I loved it. War and Peace and Crime and Punishment, the longer the better, any style, any country. Having that amount of reading out of the way was advantageous because by the time I got into college I had other things to do that were less studious. Although I don;t remember a lot about all that early reading, I agree with John Gardner that having myth and archetypes ingrained over the years gives you a well of knowledge in the subconscious. My conscious influences came during my graduate degree in English and especially Creative Writing. I went from adoring Camus and other French writers of the 40’s and 50’s to James M. Cain, and was feverishly reading Harry Crews and Charles Bukowski on the side. I don’t know if I recommend that combination. The taste I’ve acquired never fits with what’s popular, and that means forget the big bucks! However, I fooled them once.

Slushpile: Tell us a little about your apprenticeship as a writer. You have mentioned in other interviews that Miami Purity was the thesis for your MFA at Florida International. Did your classmates view writing a noir novel as any less ambitious than writing a “literary” novel? Some programs can be very highbrow and snobbish when it comes to literature.

Hendricks: The Florida International University faculty has no snobbish attitude toward any kind of fiction, and my mentors there encouraged me to read Cain as one of the best writers of all times. We students were often snobs, but luckily we didn’t make the rules. However, everything I learned at FIU was geared toward the literary, meaning character-driven. I think Miami Purity was dubbed noir by the publisher and reviewers, instead of crime, to distinguish it from plot-driven books. To look at my writing, literary is probably the last word that would come into most people’s minds, but that’s because they focus on the superficial elements of style and subject matter and don’t realize that character development is the most important aspect. In general, I think noir has a smaller audience than crime because most people would rather have plot twists and don’t mind sacrificing character.

Slushpile: What was your first publication? Miami Purity was your first published novel, but did you have any stories or articles published prior to that?

Hendricks: In the 80’s I had a little bit of literary analysis published and some miscellaneous non-fiction articles in local magazines, but I didn’t write any fiction until I was at FIU. I sent out one short story to one magazine as an assignment for a class, but that was all until Miami Purity.

Slushpile: The story of how Miami Purity was accepted while you were at a conference is a great tale. I know you’ve talked about this in other interviews, but can you relate that story for our readers?

Hendricks: I have told this story many times, but I think I still remember the true details, since I haven’t ever fictionalized it. The first hint I had that I might be able to sell Miami Purity was at the Art of the Wild Writing Conference in California. I was sitting in a fiction workshop, in a circle outside actually, when someone from the office slipped me a note that said my agent had called and Sonny Mehta might be interested in publishing my book. I didn’t have an agent, but had spoken to one a few days before who basically turned me down, but said if I would change the setting from a dry cleaners to a coffee shop, make the man the murderer instead of the woman, and don’t kill the dog, he might be able to work with me. Of course, that meant writing a completely different book, so I didn’t think anything would come of that conversation, but I had mentioned I was going to the conference that week and would talk to him about it when I got back. Apparently, he had given the book to Sonny, who loved it, and the agent wanted to take me on for the probable sale. In hindsight, I imagine he knew it was a pretty sure thing, since he went to the trouble of finding the conference, etc, but at the time I was certain it was all a big mistake, since I’d heard throughout grad school how getting a first novel published was about as likely as being struck by lightening. This was already two years after that, and I hadn’t had any bites. Not that I put out much effort. After I read the note, I guess the workshop leader asked me what was going on and I read it aloud, and everyone went wild. I had never heard of Sonny Mehta, but most of the others had the fantasy of what was happening to me. It was a celebration from then on, everyone buying me drinks, and lots of young guys getting chummy, particularly a really cute Welsh guy from Australia… I doubt I’ve mentioned that part before, but it was memorable. Anyway, I had to wait until Monday to call back, so I enjoyed myself and figured the fantasy would be over at that point. Then, of course, came the invitation to meet with the agent and Sonny, but I couldn’t do that for a month since I was headed to the Amazon to collect katydids, termites, and roaches from the jungle with an Earthwatch group.

Slushpile: You’re in the Amazon, climbing mountains, visiting Machu Picchu, and you know that Sonny Mehta and Random House may want to release your novel. You are unable to close the deal until you get back to meet with Mehta. Were you ever able to forget about that while in the Amazon or was the potential book deal in your mind the whole time?

Hendricks: There were moments when spiders, poisonous snakes, a big fish that jumped out of the river and slammed me in the chest, and dancing the Macarena in a cantina on stilts where the floor bounced up and down about a foot, I replaced thoughts of getting published, but mostly I was chanting inside my head: buy the book, buy the book, buy the book!

Slushpile: Miami Purity is described as a noir novel, but it is almost devoid of the obvious foreshadowing phrases that frequently characterize noir works. On the very first page of Jim Thompson’s After Dark, My Sweet, the narrator says “I guessed I knew that I should never have come in here.” On the first page of Thompson’s Cropper’s Cabin, the narrator says “she had the beauty, all right and plenty more. She could also mean plenty of trouble” Those lines that tell you something’s going to go bad wrong. But Miami Purity doesn’t have any of these. Did you intentionally try to avoid that type of foreshadowing lines?

Hendricks: No, I didn’t try to avoid them. Until now, I never realized foreshadowing was the mark of noir. I never read much in the genre except for James M. Cain. I was using The Postman Always Rings Twice as a model in a class, and Cain doesn’t foreshadow, not that I remember. I had no plan. I chose Postman because I loved it, and also because it was short and confined, with a first person narrator. James W. Hall, who taught the class, had devised the modeling style, and we were told we had to do a third of the amount of pages in one semester. With Postman, that was around 50 manuscript pages, as opposed to the task some people took on by choosing Catch 22 or Lolita.

Slushpile: Quite the contrary, Iguana Love, has many of these foreshadowing lines. Ramona says “life was all around, but I wasn’t supposed to have any.” Later, she dreams about Enzo floating naked in the ocean and “his stiff cock flew a tiny flag, a black and white pirate flag, but I couldn’t take the hint.” When Ramona makes comments about not being able to take the hint, you just know that trouble is only a few pages away. What caused you to include foreshadowing statements in Iguana Love?

Hendricks: I wish I could say I was more conscious of my approach to writing Miami Purity or Iguana Love, but it took a while until I was able to analyze what I was doing. I still need improvement! Jim Hall called me a “primitive” after my thesis defense. I think that meant that I hadn’t “defended” Miami Purity very well, but he liked the book enough that it didn’t matter. He was my thesis advisor, so I knew he liked it all along.

Slushpile: Iguana Love draws the reader in, like a mystery or noir should, and holds their attention. But it’s interesting that as far as the plot is concerned, it isn’t until Enzo tells Ramona that he has a job for her and she thinks about a “square black package I visualized tilted against a rock. I didn’t have the imagination to figure out what kind of drugs might be inside” on page 138 of the novel before any actual crime is mentioned. Up to that point in the novel, there is sexual tension, and hints of malice, but really nothing that we normally associate with a noir or mystery. The first 137 pages could really be a “literary novel” that explores Ramona’s dating patterns. Why did you choose to hold off on the crime for so long?

Hendricks: No matter what word publishers use to classify my books, you really hit on my purpose. I’m not holding off anything. In my mind, I’m writing literary novels about sexual obsession, and murder is an interesting and logical outcome. I don’t enjoy mystery or the solving of a crime. Psychology is what excites me, playing with human nature and emotions, unraveling my characters in all their twisted glory. The problem is that what I’ve developed is a mixture of literary and crime. I’m not recognized much in the literary world because I dally with crime, and since I use few tricks and plot twists for “normal” crime fans, my sales numbers stay low. I think that’s why the use of the word noir came about, trying to identify the style and subject matter of the books, so my audience could find me. However, now anything with a dark character is considered noir, so I’m in the mix.

Slushpile: You build the tension very subtly in your work. So many times, you read a book and think “okay, the writer thinks it’s time to up the ante” because it’s obvious what they’re doing. How do you build this tension, this pressure, without drawing attention to the act?

Hendricks: This answer is related to the last. I just put myself into a psychologically twisted personality and follow the logical outcome. That way I guess the pressure builds naturally. I’m not astute enough to notice writers “upping the ante” in most cases, or maybe I don’t read those books. If I’m captured by the personality, I’m completely under the spell, and I dontt think about the plot. My favorite part is the first half of the book when the character is being fleshed out. If I’ve fallen in love with an original character I don’t want the book to end, and if I haven’t, I just quit reading. The same goes for writing. I have to be intrigued with my character to keep going. Basically, I’m just spreading him or her out in the first half, through choices and actions, with some vague notion of how he or she will end up. After the mid-point, I draw all the strands together to see what new attitude has developed. I don’t know how I decide when I’ve reached the mid-point, but I have a sense of when it seems time to rein in before the number of pages gets out of control.

Slushpile: I guess a more overall question would be how you accomplish so much with your writing without being obvious about it. Is it the Hemingway influence?

Hendricks: Can I just take that as a compliment? I’m not sure how I keep from being obvious, but I’m always conscious of the fact that I don?Ä´t want to waste words or bore anyone. I try to pick the best details, and therefore, don’t need many. The more time I have to rewrite, the more words I’m able to take out. I’m happy if it seems to be Hemingway influence, but I’m really just following good principles of writing. I’ve had excellent instructors all my life pointing these things out.

Slushpile: Your work features some pretty detailed, pretty graphic sex scenes. How did you make the decision to go ahead and write out those scenes instead of just fading to black and then skipping to the next scene, like many authors do?

Hendricks: Again, I wasn’t really making a conscious decision about what would be best for the sex scenes. I started writing graphic sex in graduate school, and it created such a stir in the classroom, good and bad, that it became my signature. It’s also a means of entertaining myself while I’m writing. I like to read graphic sex scenes and there just aren’t enough of them around, unless you go straight to porno, which is lacking in character development, among other things.

Slushpile: It is often said that sex scenes are among the most difficult to write. What should a writer keep in mind when attempting to write a sex scene? Do you approach a sex scene differently than you approach any other scene?

Hendricks: A sex scene can accomplish the same goals as any other scene: characterization, plot movement, emotional connection or separation. I don’t always know what I’m after when I start writing, but by the time I finish, I’ve found a purpose. I think originality is very important to keep in mind. You don’t want all your sex scenes to sound alike, and that can be a problem. I’ve spread out into various sexual and animal combinations to overcome the sameness… sex with a dead iguana, in Iguana Love, for example. One major problem is the use of pronouns in same-sex scenes. It’s almost impossible to indicate who’s inserting what and where, unless you use names unnaturally often. That makes me crazy because there’s no solution… our language has not developed appropriate pronouns to distinguish homosexual partners. Language is always a slippery consideration in writing about sex. You don’t want to talk in generalizations or euphemisms, as in romance, but you can also sound too clinical. Slang generally works best, but the words people really use are extremely limited. One of my favorite bits of information concerning my sex scenes came from a friend employed at Borders. He told me that when Miami Purity came out they used to find it on the floor of the men’s room!

Slushpile: It is somewhat unusual to find a female writer who writes about sex in the way that you do. Do you find that men who have read your work approach you any differently when they met you in real life because of your writing?

Hendricks: Some are attracted because of the writing, and a few are scared by it, thinking that I’m like the characters I create. The “I” narrator is probably responsible for some of the confusion. I’ve been with the same boyfriend for about 4 years now, so there aren’t any new stories, but I get letters from prisoners and other strange sorts. I’ve stopped answering those. It was never a good idea.

Slushpile: How do your students approach you after reading your work? I must confess that there were times, particularly when I was young and knew nothing about contemporary literature, that I read Barry Hannah’s work and then went into class the next day and thought “this man’s totally insane.” Do you have idea of how your students perceive you?

Hendricks: My students are in community college and most of them don’t read for entertainment… they’re struggling to work and raise families at the same time. Some are very young, with parents who might not be appreciative, so I keep a pretty low profile. I have never tried to get the college bookstore to order, and the administration is probably glad I don’t push it! However, there are a few students who hear about me and sign up for my creative writing, and they have normally read some of my stuff. Of course, they’re always as nuts as I am, so it seems all perfectly natural. We feed off each other! I love Barry Hannah’s work, and I’ve heard him speak several times, always with wonderful, interesting, and clever information. I never thought he was insane, but then I’m always accused of not recognizing craziness.

Slushpile: What is the most common suggestion you give to your students?

Hendricks: There are always many necessary suggestions. One major tip is to avoid surprise endings. To me, when somebody spends a whole story just writing to keep something from you, the ending is a let down. Of course, there are writers who can include a surprise with extraordinary results, like O’Henry or Maupassant, but there are very few with such rare genius. Students see the surprise and think that’s why they like the story, when really that’s all surface, and it would be flat without the emotional power of the characters. Even worse, some people try to keep you guessing from start to finish. I’ve had students refuse to let you know if the narrator is male or female, dog or cat. I don’t know why they think anybody would want to read a story that’s filled with unknowns. You can’t care about the character if you don’t know anything about him/her/it.

Slushpile: I have a bit of a watch obsession and often collaborate on watch news with my colleagues at The Wrist Watch Review. What’s your favorite brand of diving watch?

Hendricks: Ha! I’ve been wearing the same Swiss Army watch for years, in and out of the water. I just had it reconditioned last winter. It’s small, so I can wear it for any occasion, with a dress or a jumpsuit. I suppose that could be seen as a watch obsession.

Slushpile: What’s your theory on why great white sharks breach as a hunting technique in South Africa and near the Farallon Islands off the coast of California but don’t exhibit this behavior in other areas?

Hendricks: Did these questions get slipped in from a Discovery Channel interview or are you testing me? I don’t know a thing about these sharks. Do you? I swam with raggy tooth sharks in South Africa but it was in a cave and they aren’t the biting kind. I had plans to do the “mean” shark trip, but weather prevented it. These raggy tooth guys came up close, and there were thirty or more in there, but they had big innocent eyes.

Slushpile: You’re a pretty adventurous person, but what is your limit? You scuba dive, skydive, rock-climb, etc. What is the one thing you wouldn’t be able to bring yourself to do?

Hendricks: I’ve only done a little rock climbing… hard work compared to skydiving. I shy away from operating vehicles. I like going fast with my body through the air, but I would be hell behind the wheel of a racecar or something like that. I have been a passenger in acrobatics planes and I love that. It would require a lot of time and money for me to learn to fly and get to that level of expertise, so I think I’ll just continue to let somebody else do the hard part. A few pilots have tried to make me toss my lunch–maybe because I always make a point of saying that it can’t be done–but so far they haven’t succeeded. I like that feeling of my stomach roving loose inside me and then the sort of grinding down into the seat you get from positive G’s. I can make myself feel it, just thinking about it. It feels really good. I enjoy the rocking motion of a boat that makes most people sick also, but I’m sure I have my limit.

Slushpile: In other interviews, you have referred to an unnamed, but obviously male, agent that set the wheels in motion for publishing Miami Purity. But in other books, you’ve thanked Elizabeth Ziemska for being your agent. Who are you working with now?

Hendricks: That was Nat Sobel on Miami Purity. I never know if people want names or not. I’m on my fifth agent right now, David Hale Smith. We’ve just gotten started, so no deals yet, but he’s giving it a go. My problem has always been low numbers of sales. Editors, and therefore agents, are generally more interested in the numbers than they are in reading a new book. People who like my stuff really crave it, but there aren’t enough of them. I’ll never be popular, as far as I can see. I need an ad on the Indy Film channel. I write to my own taste, and I like very little that’s popular, whether we’re talking books, film, food, sports, travel, anything I care about.

Slushpile: There is quite a vibrant group of writers in south Florida with people like you, John Dufresne, James Hall, Elmore Leonard, Les Standiford, and others. Is this just a result of a large metropolitan area, or do you think there is something in the culture that attracts and cultivates writers?

Hendricks: I think Florida International University with Les as department head is responsible for bringing most of these people to the area. The great faculty he’s attracted (including Dufresne, Jim Hall, Dan Wakefield and Lynne Barrett, who was my mentor) and quality instruction have helped several of us students to add our names to the published writer list, Barbara Parker and Dennis Lehane, being the most well-known, with Christine Kling coming up lately. Florida is also a nice place to live most of the year, so we get people like Michael Connelly, and winter visitors like Elmore Leonard, who can afford to live wherever they want. Maybe they choose Florida because it’s writer-friendly and there’s a lot going on. We also have Miami International Bookfair, which is the largest in the country. Writers come down, like the area, and they come back.

Slushpile: Why do you think this group tends to veer more towards noir or crime and mystery novels? Dufresne is generally considered a “literary” writer but the others are more crime related. Why so many crime scribes in southern Florida?

Hendricks: There’s a sort of crime mystique, I think, created by Miami Vice years ago. Maybe Florida crime writers get more attention and it just seems that we have an overload of talent here. Again, like attracts like, and that’s all I can figure.

Slushpile: The crime writing genre seems to be much more tight-knit and friendly than the “literary” genre. Why is that?

Hendricks: I travel in both groups, being connected academically because of getting an MFA in creative writing. Having gone to the Associated Writers Program Conference this spring, I’m not sure if your generalization is true. There were thousands of people from colleges and universities all over the country, all writers, and they were very friendly, helpful, and interesting. Lots of people meet up from years of acquaintance. Possibly the academics seem more competitive and less encouraging to each other because there are so few positions in creative writing, so little publishing money, and everyone knows who is after all of it. Whereas, in the business world of publishing, you never know if somebody beat you out of something or why. Nobody to blame except the stinking publishing business!

Slushpile: I know you are very fond of the late Larry Brown’s work. What is your favorite Larry Brown novel or short story? Or is it one of his essays?

Hendricks: I think Larry Brown in one of the best and most neglected writers in the past fifteen years. He’s a classic Southern writer and I’m sure his work will continue to be read increasingly in the future, but it’s a shame that he didn’t have more popularity during his lifetime. His short stories were what drew me to his writing in the first place, but all his novels and non-fiction are excellent, but the novel that stands out most is Fay. I can’t say the title without wanting to go back and read it again. I neglected everything to finish that book in a day and a half, despite the last minute stack of research papers to grade in finals week. His voice, whether from a male or female point of view, and understanding of human nature are what captivate me.

Slushpile: When Black Lizard, an imprint of Random House, was going to publish the paperback version of Miami Purity, you rejected one of their cover suggestions. What was the cover that you didn’t like?

Hendricks: The cover for the paperback for Miami Purity wasn’t anything scandalous. It just didn’t have anything to do with the story or the character. It appeared to be a French girl standing near European architecture. I was told that the editor and others just shuffle through a variety of photos and if nobody veto’s one of them then that’s the choice. I didn’t expect them to listen to me, but they did immediately, and then came up with the photo of a woman in a bra in a sleazy bedroom, which made much more sense.

Slushpile: You’ve mentioned that thrill seekers tend to, among other things, like hard and heavy music. As an unabashed metal head, I just have to ask what are your tastes in music?

Hendricks: I’m not a typical skydiver in music taste, although I follow the thrill-seeker mold in other ways. I’ve never learned enough about music to develop refined taste. I enjoy music, but it doesn’t affect my writing or life very much. That said, I would have to choose blues as my favorite, but I listened to Santana’s Supernatural all during the first draft of Cruel Poetry, the novel that’s due out next year.

Slushpile: Published writers often become targets for every one who has ever thought about writing a book. What is the craziest thing someone has done to get you to read their work or to introduce them to your agent or otherwise help them?

Hendricks: Not sure. I always like to think that the sexual propositions are in response to my physical assets and charming personality, rather than a ploy to meet my agent! But one never knows. (I have to admit there was an increase after Miami Purity was published.)

Slushpile: How do you think your fiction is going to change in the future? What would you like to pursue in future work? What aspects of your writing do you think need the most improvement?

Hendricks: I’m considering writing an historical fiction. I’ve got a person and an era in mind, but I might just go straight for the screenplay, rather than the novel. I’m enjoying the screenplay form right now and trying to hone my skills. I also have a non-fiction adventure book in mind that I’ve been saving material for since 1992, but so far haven’t found the right voice. Someday. What do I need to improve in fiction? That’s a hard question because I think I’m beyond the things that can be explained. I’ve had years of instruction and practice and understand the logic, purpose, and techniques of fiction, but there’s a level that you have to learn intuitively. My mentor, Lynne Barrett, mentioned at a conference last spring that she felt so proud of me and another of her past students because we had learned something about writing short stories that nobody can teach you. You have to reach a certain level to know that it exists. I’ll never forget that because Lynne is among the very best instructors I’ve ever known, and I’ve known plenty.

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can;t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?

Hendricks: No surprise endings. It’s worth repeating!

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?

Hendricks: Don’t expect to get an honest or informed opinion from family and friends who are not published writers. Never start to send out to an agent or editor before you have had instruction and comments from someone in the writing business whose work you admire.

*****

Check out Ms. Hendricks’ website here.

Buy Miami Purity or one of Hendricks’ other books here.