Lesley Kagen, author of Whistling in the Dark, interviewed by Stacy Wennstrom
In Lesley Kagen’s debut novel, Whistling in the Dark, Sally and Troo O’Malley are on the loose in their Milwaukee neighborhood after their mother is hospitalized one summer, with only a neglectful stepfather and a teenage sister to watch over them. A killer with an interest in preteen girls is also on the loose, and Sally is certain he will come after her next.
SB: If I could identify what I liked best about best about Whistling in the Dark, it would be the child narrator: Sally’s inquisitive, her innocence, and her childlike perspective where her neighborhood becomes its own world. I was wondering if it was difficult to stay within a 10-year-old’s point of view. There’s always going to be so many things you know about the story that Sally will never stop to think about. Of course, there’s this limitation with adult narrators, but even more so with a child. Did you feel limited by Sally’s age, or did it enable you to guide the novel in ways that would have been impossible with a more omniscient narrator?
LK: No, I think probably the second choice. It was so interesting to me to get back into that frame of mind, and I can’t tell you why it was so easy for me to do that. It just was. To be ten years old again and to remember the way a ten-year-old thinks is so different. A child thinks differently than an adult, how they put things together because they don’t have the same amount of information, especially for Sally because she doesn’t have any type of parental guidance at this point. Most kids will come up and many times will ask an adult, “What do you think that is?” or “What do you think that is?” A lot of times they won’t. A lot of times kids just make up these ideas, draw conclusions, and then off they go acting on those conclusions which are erroneous. She can come up with different ideas, different thoughts, and they aren’t logical at all because kids are not very logical. It’s all just based on impulsive thought. “Well, this happened so that must mean this,” and everything is so limited, so it was kind of relaxing in a way to be at that point again in my life where I didn’t have to sit down and make a list of pros and cons every time I formulated a decision or drew a conclusion. Kids do that so quickly. In a flash. “Well, this happened so that means that.” And so that to me was a relief in a way.
Every once in a while I caught myself, at a few points, noticing she can’t think that or she can’t say that because she’s not at that developmental stage yet. I tried to be incredibly particular about that development, where she was in her development, and checked with psychiatrists and a couple other people who are well versed in child development to make sure I was spot on and not overreaching the bounds, and you have to make sure you are not too immature and not too mature. So I really felt like when I had her voice and I felt like I was back at that point, I felt quite confident with this, so I thought it was freeing, in a way. It was really great to find that ten-year-old voice again.
SB: I think you did a great job. You really captured the age perfectly where you still have the inquisitiveness of a small child but Sally’s getting curious about adult things too. I think you maintained that balance very well.
LK: Thank you very much! I think the thing about Sally is that she’s suffered a lot of trauma in a very short amount of time and because of that, when kids go through that with the death of a parent and the illness of her mom, it makes them very hyperaware and I’m not going to call it imaginative, but really, in Sally’s case, she has gotten so frustrated about things that she has gone into this protect mode, where her senses are so heightened, and she wants to keep Troo and herself safe.
SB: Throughout the novel, I sometimes found myself cringing at how everyone kept encouraging Sally to grow out of her imagination to the point where Sally seemed worried that her imagination would cause her to go insane. While her imagination certainly took a lot of interesting leaps, she seemed a perfectly normal ten-year-old to me. A bit fanciful, but no more so than Anne Shirley or some other young female protagonist. Was this something you saw as a child or experienced as a child?
LK: Some of this book is very autobiographical. My father did die when I was very young and my mother did get very sick during one summer, and my sisters and I were left with our stepfather who we really didn’t know. That trauma and that sense of fear and insecurity that I felt as I child, I think I transferred to Sally. I think the reason she is so frightened is confirmed, and yet she still is a kid, and I think her imagination is running overtime. She is more imaginative, for instance, than Troo who is slightly younger, and I think Sally’s experience with trauma of her dad dying, affected her differently than Troo. Also, this is a blue collar neighborhood, and I think that fanciful sorts of things in blue collar families–imagination, artwork, anything that was kind of arty–wasn’t valued particularly. Nobody that my family knew was an artist or a writer or anything that had to do with the arts. People were very grounded, blue collar, working in retail stores and factories. I think that Sally’s imagination has gotten away with her, and she mentions a few times in the book how frightened she is of the creature from the black lagoon. I think a child dealing with the loss of a parent has this anxiety when they are feeling not taken care of.
SB: With Sally not feeling as though she is being taken care of, this world you’ve portrayed in this novel of Milwaukee in the fifties seems particularly ominous to females.
LK: Well, I think fifties were. . . how old are you?
LK: Okay, so this is quite a bit before your time. Back then, I would say that in many ways girl children were not as valued as boy children in terms of girls being on the loose. A blue collar neighborhood in Milwaukee in 1959 was a pretty rough area. There were a lot of bullies. It was rough for children who were not being watched over because some of the families were so huge with thirteen, fourteen, fifteen kids in a lot of Irish-Catholic families. So there were a lot of things going on that parents didn’t know about. If they did know about it, the mindset was so different back then, and kids are watched over a lot more carefully than back then. And if you kept whining to your parents that Tommy beat you up, you kind of sucked it up and went on. Now if that happened, the child would probably be arrested for aggravated assault, so it was a very different time in terms of what was allowable and what wasn’t allowable and who had to be accountable and who didn’t have to be accountable.
SB: They all did seem to be on the loose here with bullies on every corner. I would have assumed that back in the fifties, kids would have stayed more at home, with their moms also staying home with them, but then with a blue collar neighborhood, that might not necessarily have been the case.
LK: Right. The moms were home, but they were doing their things during the day; they were washing. My mom didn’t even have a washing machine. You have to remember, I can remember before television, so this was a long time ago. My mom had to put the clothes through the wringer and then hang the clothes up to dry. Household tasks took a lot more time than they do now, and that is what women did during the day. They cooked, they grocery shopped, and they made the food, all without a dishwasher; children were dishwashers. So women were involved in keeping the family running in that context–the food, the wash–but they weren’t necessarily the kinds of moms who were going to sit around and discuss things with you. They were really quite busy. Imagine a woman taking care of twelve or thirteen children. That’s a lot of work, so of course, a lot of these kids from large families didn’t get the kind of parenting they should have gotten. Who can actually parent thirteen children? When you have thirteen, what ends up happening is the kids are raised by the other kids in the family. It was wild; it was absolutely wild. Once in a while if you were walking down the street and you got caught by another parent doing something, they’d smack you one. It was a very different culture than it is now.
SB: The portrayals of the families in Whistling in the Dark are great. Like the Fast Susie Fazio’s family, and Susie’s grandmother in particular. She was in there for just two scenes, but she made such an impression as a fierce matriarch.
LK: In the Italian culture, there’s a lot of respect for the elderly. And Nana, she ruled the roost. Absolutely ruled the roost, and she was a fierce little woman. Not going to take any sass from anybody.
SB: I found the mix of nationalities in this novel to be fascinating. From Helen’s interest in the name game where she teaches her daughters about different nationalities to the strife between Irish, Polish, German, and Italian families. I happened to notice that the people who helped Sally and Troo the most were culturally outsiders. You have Ethel, an African-American woman, and Officer Rasmussen who is a Danish man. Was this a deliberate choice?
LK: I think that this was such an interesting time period. That is absolutely true; my mother used to do that with us all the time. It’s interesting that at some of the readings when I speak to people who have read the book and are around my age, they grew up with the exact same thing. It was at that time in our culture where we were so culturally diverse and everybody felt that. You have to know that Milwaukee is the number one most segregated city in the United States in terms of black and white, so having Ethel in the book was really important to me. I actually never saw a black person until probably 1965, when my stepfather brought home a man that he worked with to help mow the lawn, and I had never seen any black people at all unless I was taking a bus through what you called the poor area of Milwaukee, but to have a relationship with one, that was out of the question. There would be no opportunity for that.
So that was the culture of the block. You were friends with everybody, but there was always the thought that these people are different than we are. We’re Irish; they’re Italian; they’re German; they’re Danish. That’s the way it was. If you were friends for a long time, you forgot, but the cultures were so strong. I think as time has gone on, culture has got a lot more diluted. Back then the cultures were still very, very strong; there was more traditional stuff that was going on within the families, especially within the Italian families. With all of the cultures, they maintained their core more than any other culture in the melting pot.
I think when I was writing, what Ethel represented to me, was the perfect nurturance that Sally and Troo needed. Even their own mother was distant from them in the sense that she had so many problems of her own and had just suffered the loss of her husband and all of the other things that we don’t know about in the middle of the book. She was under a lot of stress and a rather curt woman. With her absence in most of the book, the girls really needed to have someone to go to, to feel a sense a nurturance, and I guess I felt that Ethel was the perfect person for that, and I wanted to have a black person in the book. I did. I think that part of that was the lack of having any black people in my life as a child, and my curiosity about black people. What happens in their houses? It was something I was fascinated by as a child, and I think that is part of what Ethel’s manifestation is, part of that fascination.
SB: Very interesting. About Mrs. Goldman, the Holocaust survivor, she seemed to be a bit like Sally in her value of the imagination, her need to peer below the surface of things. Both Sally and Mrs. Goldman seemed to be very empathetic, able to encourage others around them, even when they were suffering an extreme loss themselves. Were they meant to be a bit similar?
LK: Yes, and I think that Sally feels a deep empathy with Mrs. Goldman. I think there’s a couple things that promote that bond between the two of them. As you go on in the book, you understand that Mrs. Goldman has lost a daughter and the sadness she felt permeated many things although she tried to be careful and she tried to go about her business. I think there was a sadness there, a loss, and I think Sally felt so deeply her own father’s loss, and that connected the two of them, the deep sense of loss. Also that Mrs. Goldman was a gardener was extremely important, and that reminded Sally so much of her father, so I think for the two of them, those qualities drew Sally to Mrs. Goldman so much.
SB: Now, I just have some obligatory writing questions. When you first began writing Whistling in the Dark, how did you make writing into a habit? I read that you own a sushi restaurant, and in my experience, restaurant life means long hours and a lot of stress, and how did you encourage yourself to keep going during difficult days?
LK: Well, I just started this pattern where I would get up every morning at five o’ clock. I have to have it very quiet when I write, so I would get up every morning at five, and I still do, and I would write until about ten, ten-thirty. I know during that period, I’m going to have a lot of quiet, and I can figure things out, and I can write. After that point, I don’t write again for the rest of the day. I have that pocket, and that’s when I write, and then I have to get done all of the other stuff done that needs to get done. I run over to the restaurant and I run the lunch shift, and then I come home. Then my husband, Peter, usually runs the dinner shift, so I’m free at night and what I usually do is touch up on things. I usually don’t think too much about the writing during the day.
LK: I rarely think about it. I’m not an outliner; I’m not a person who has a plan. For me, the writing is perfect. It just happens. I’ll sit there, and I think so much of it is going on subconsciously for me that if you’re writing, for instance, nonfiction, you have to have a plan and use the left side of your brain to work all those sorts of things out. In writing this type of book, I relied not so much on my conscious mind as allowing subconscious stuff to take over. You know. You’re a writer; you understand how that works. You’ll be writing and then, all of a sudden, something happens. It’s not anything you were thinking about consciously; it just happens. You’ve been thinking about it in some other part of your brain, or some other part of your brain has been working on it. However that works exactly, I’m not 100% sure, but I really don’t think about it too much. Once in a while, I’ll get an idea while I’m taking a shower, but other than that, I pretty much try to keep writing to the times when I am writing and let it go the rest of the time. My brain can figure all of things that need to get figured out without me having to sit down and think about it. You know what I mean?
SB: Sure, but I think I’m a little bit different. I think all of my ideas come to me when I’m nowhere near a computer or paper.
LK: I will have that happen occasionally, like I said when I’m in the shower, or I’ll be driving the car. Two things, I think, where you’re not engaged with other kinds of thought, that allow your story to come up in the place where you have easy access to it. I don’t think ideas really occur when you’re engaged, and your brain is engaged in something else. It tends to happen when you’re on autopilot, like driving a car or taking a shower, or things that don’t involve a lot of thought.
SB: If you were to give any advice to new writers, what would it be?
LK: I think that the most important part of writing is the discipline that’s involved. Getting up every day, finding the time during that day when you’re going to write. It’s really difficult I think to stay with it, to stay involved, to move forward with it, if it’s done sporadically. I think it’s like any relationship. There’s a lot of time that has to be spent on it in order for it to thoroughly thrive. If it’s only done sporadically, if it’s only done occasionally, it just doesn’t seem to work. I think there is a flow involved, and that it is important that you stick with that flow as much as you can. I don’t think it’s too important for every writer to worry too much about getting published. I think that writing is an incredibly wonderful thing to do and that everybody should do it, no matter what level it’s at, whether it’s journaling or keeping a diary or if it’s even writing a novel. Then if you go on to the next place, if you choose to get published, that’s a whole other ball of wax that you have to be aware of. It’s going to be a completely different experience of going through the publishing process than the writing process. I think it can be kind of tough for writers. We spend so much time by ourselves, and then when the book is finished, or the short story or article, then there’s the next step which is the sales step, and you have to put on such a different hat. I think it’s good that people are aware once their piece is done, the sales part starts. It’s important to know everything you can about that process.
SB: I really like your description of writing as a relationship. I usually hear writers compare writing to exercise, and I’ve always thought that it was an unappealing way to look at it, like you’ll get flabby if you don’t write, but the relationship example is absolutely perfect.
LK: Yes, I think that it is. I know and I’m sure that you know when you’re writing, you’re having a relationship with the people in your book or story. Most of all there’s time that has to be spent, that has to be put into any relationship in order for it to be successful.
SB: Now, who would you say are the writers who have influenced you? Or any writers who have acted as a mentor to you?
LK: You know, it’s so hard. Someone else asked me this not too long ago. I think writing–I don’t know if this is a popular way to think about it–I think that writers are born. I always wanted to be a great singer. That was my biggest dream, to be a fabulous singer, and I thought this was an attainable goal until I started taking voice lessons. No matter how hard I tried, and no matter how many lessons I took, I was not born with the pipes. I was not born with that talent. I think writing is the same sort of thing. I think you are a born writer and that you then choose to develop that talent any way that you want to. You can not develop it at all. You can do everything you possibly can to learn about the craft of writing, which is very different from the natural ability to write. Then I think the most important part of writing is reading. I think that without reading, without understanding, without becoming part of other people’s worlds, you cannot create your own worlds. I think this is what novels do.
I had this wonderful call from a young girl this morning. She said she was twenty-two years old, and she said she had been waiting for a friend in a bookstore, and she was sitting in a chair when she saw Whistling in the Dark. She said, “It’s not something I’d normally pick; I only read nonfiction. I hadn’t read any fiction in the longest time. I picked up the book and read the synopsis on the back, and I thought, ‘Well good, maybe I’ll go read this.'” She called me this morning and said, “I want to thank you so much for reminding me what it is like to read a novel. I felt so sad when I ended the book because I missed the girls and I missed the neighborhood,” and I think if a writer is doing their job, that’s how readers should feel. They should regret that the book is over because they become part of that book.
Now, I’m not sure if I can pinpoint that down to one writer. I think that everyone I’ve ever read has helped me in some way. Nancy Drew and Carolyn Keene was a huge influence in my life when I was a child. There’s so many books that I read as child that were so important to me, and I’ve always read. I’m a voracious reader. The only type of literature that I won’t read is science fiction. I can’t keep straight all of the space terms and things.
If I had to pick one piece, it would be really hard. Of course, I have to say I love To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s a wonderful woman who has written an incredible book, and I don’t know if it really sold all that well, but it was an incredible book. With every page I read, I had to put it down and gather my thoughts back up again. It’s by Abigail Thomas, who is an incredible writer and who teaches writing, I believe, at the New School in New York. It’s a book called A Three Dog Life. It’s a phenomenal book. I think it is so interesting how books impact people differently. I can pick something up and it will bowl me over, literally take my breath away, and I give that book to somebody else and they’ll say, “Well, what do you like about this so much?” It’s the amazing thing about fiction, about novels, or any book really. I think most movies provide so much input for you that I think most people can generally agree on movies, generally, but I think with books because the reader is supplying so much information within a story, personal information, it becomes a very different situation.
SB: So, it’s all about the shared experience?
LK: Exactly. Every book I’ve ever read has helped me in some way, has added to my knowledge base of how to write. There are books I can’t stand. There are books I pick up and I think, this is the most horrible book I’ve ever read in my whole life. Why is this the most horrible book I’ve read in my entire life? It just isn’t appealing to me. I want to write books that engage people. That is what is important to me. I want you, when you’re done reading Whistling in the Dark, to feel something. To be involved. Like in a relationship, you feel something. Sad or a little frightened or whatever. The books that don’t help readers do that, I’m not sure that I actually understand the point of. Suspense and chillers and things like that, where people just like the titillation of those kinds of things. I am much more interested in things that touch people. I thought that The Lovely Bones was a wonderful book. I thought Alice Sebold did a wonderful job with that book. So there are writers who are able to touch me, and I think those are the writers who most affect how I look at writing and how I feel about writing.
SB: So, what is next for you?
LK: I am concentrating right now on finishing up my next book, Land of a Hundred Wonders. That will be out, I’m a little confused at this point, but I think it is August of next year. It is set in 1973 in a small town in Kentucky. It’s a bit different from Milwaukee, a little bit more rural, and more recent in timeframe. I think of it as almost a morality play and a cowboy story and a love story all rolled into one.
SB: That’s a mix of genres.
LK: It is. I think it is kind of an unusual book. I think, I mean I’m not sure. I’m very fond of the protagonist, so we’ll see how it all goes, but I love it. I think it is similar to Whistling in the sense that it talks about some powerful and profound things, but I think in a rather simple way. There’s also some tragedy, too, and some spirituality, so I think it has a bit of everything in it that I’m interested in.
Stacy Wennstrom is a nonfiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2007, Stacy Wennstrom