Barbara Rogan’s most recent offering, A DANGEROUS FICTION (Viking), is one of my favorite types of fiction–a coupling of literary and mysterious. The novel follows Jo Donovan, head of a prestigious New York literary agency and the widow of a renowned author. When a would-be client starts stalking Jo, she has to delve into the stories of real life that she’s carefully edited—or face the consequences.
Barbara Rogan and I sat down to talk more about the book.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how genre-bending A DANGEROUS FICTION is. Do you think genre taxonomy is important when it comes to publishing, and where does your book fit in that ecosystem?
“Genre” started out as publishing shorthand intended for the convenience of booksellers and reviewers, and I think its usefulness stops there. I don’t think of literary fiction as a category separate from other genres. My own books have been classified as literary fiction, women’s fiction, and mystery. Those deemed “literary fiction” are no better written than the others. I really don’t buy the whole dichotomy between literature and popular fiction. I see writing more as a continuum calibrated, not by genre, but by the quality of the writing.
My own books often blend genres, including SUSPICION, which had elements of mystery, modern Gothic, and ghost stories. Critics are calling A DANGEROUS FICTION a literary mystery, which seems about right to me.
Jo gives her stalker the pseudonym “Sam Spade,” a clear tribute to Dashiell Hammett’s iconic detective. How has the noir/hard-boiled classic impacted your work? More generally, what are your literary influences?
I loved both Hammett and Chandler and read their novels multiple times, so I’m sure they made an impression. Thomas Harris’s RED DRAGON is another paradigm thriller I’ve studied. But it’s hard for me to single out influences, because I’m a voracious reader of all kinds of fiction, and there isn’t a good book I’ve read that hasn’t taught me something about writing. Other writers are always the best teachers.
Throughout her marriage, Jo takes pride in being her husband’s muse: “If Hugo was an oak, I was a vine twined around his greatness.” Do you think there there’s a muse standing in a writer’s shadow? If so, how did that affect your writing?
I don’t agree with Jo. That is indeed how she sees herself in relation to her husband, the famous writer Hugo Donovan. But I think her friend Molly had it right when she said that Jo wasn’t who she was because Hugo married her; rather, Hugo married her because of who she was.
As far as muses go, I’m not superstitious in quite that way. I find that writing begets inspiration more than the other way around.
I trusted Jo’s point of view less and less as the book progressed. How did the first person point of view help you shape the story you wanted to tell?
Great observation and question! That POV choice was essential to the story. I needed to focus readers’ attention where I wanted it and steer it away from the real clues in the story. Limiting the POV to Jo’s perspective, which meant filtering everything through her preconceptions and blind spots, was a necessary device for this novel. In fact, it’s one of the original inspirations for the book. I’d seen other writers employ unreliable narrators to great effect, and I wanted to play, too.
You kept me guessing until the very end of the book! I don’t want to spoil the ending for our members, but let me ask you, what is your approach to crafting a good whodunit?
Glad to hear it! In whodunits it’s all about the plotting, which is not something that comes easily to me. It feels like playing chess with three opponents simultaneously, all of them better than me. The challenge in A DANGEROUS FICTION was to keep all the suspects viable till the end.
The book gives an inside view of the workings of a literary agency, not all of it complimentary. What was your agent’s reaction when she read the manuscript for the first time?
My agent found it realistic, which wasn’t too surprising, since I’d been an agent myself for many years; and despite the technological revolution, not much has changed in the business of representing writers. The only quibble she had was with the monthly slush-pile meeting that opens the novel. Most agents, she said correctly, wouldn’t spend valuable agency time discussing work that had already been turned down. But I felt it said something about Jo that she did, so I kept the scene in.
You’ve worn many hats in your career: that of a literary agent, author, and writing teacher. What part has been your favorite?
Agenting was the most fun. I got to travel the world, guzzle champagne, meet brilliant people, and deal in books: what could be better? But writing is the most fulfilling. It’s harder, but ultimately more satisfying.
As a veteran in publishing, what advice would you give to writers?
Work on the craft. Celebrity writers aside, publishing is one of the last meritocracies, and exceptional work will be noticed and rewarded. Be patient and do as many drafts as it takes. Revision is an essential part of the process.
What advice do you think Jo would give to aspiring authors?
Strangely enough, I think she’d give the same advice I just gave.