If you haven’t figured it out by now, we’ll tell you that all of us here at The Big Click are secretly in love with Libby Cudmore, which is why our final issue is dedicated to her. We were very keen to chat with her via email about her debut novel the hipster noir The Big Rewind, MFA programs, NYC, and other things. Check ‘er out, then check out her book!
So, why crime fiction? Given your age and geeky interests, one would think that science fiction/fantasy would be a demographical inevitability. What turned you on to crime fiction, as a reader and a writer?
My earliest stories were fantasy stories and X‑Files fan-fiction, and pretty terrible ones at that. But when I was in college, I took Arthurian Lit with an amazing professor, who had us read Lancelot and The Long Goodbye. I liked Lancelot, but The Long Goodbye really landed with me—like, “miss dinner to keep reading” kind of obsession. I read the whole in one sitting. It had everything I loved about writing fantasy; chivalry and an otherwordliness and romance, but it was gritty and dark and lonely. Raymond Chandler, along with Tom Waits and Sin City, which came out in theaters that year, changed my life.
And looking back, a lot of the stories I’d written as a teenager had elements of crime to them—assassins, The FBI, etc. My fantasy stories were about lawless pirates and rogue swordswomen. It wasn’t a difficult conversion.
But but… Sin City was awful! Defend it!
Sin City is awesome and amazing and, at one point, between my friend Jason and I, we could recite the entire thing. Also, Clive Owen is mad hot.
You’re also a reporter for a newspaper. Are you on the crime beat? Does reportage scratch the same itch as fiction-writing? I suppose I’d wondered if you were a Lois Lane fan as a kid!
I fell into newspaper reporting completely by accident. My editor hired my husband as a photographer after he saw him taking pictures downtown. And when he needed a reporter, Ian recommended me, and I’ve been there ever since. My dad was a newspaper man, so I guess it’s in the blood.
Because we’re a small office, both my editor and I cover every story that comes our way, and there isn’t a ton of crime in our county (other than the occasional drug bust or DWI). But I did get the nickname “Blood & Gore Cudmore” for the coverage of the few major crimes we did have, including a guy shooting his dad six times in the back and a couple of extremely grim murder-suicides.
I wouldn’t say it scratches the same itch, but it definitely helped me become a better writer because I was constantly exploring my world. I meet fascinating people, all with their own stories. One week it’s someone with a bubblegum collection, the next, it’s whether or not Common Council should allow chickens in the city. You really get to see all sides of people, and that taught me to really develop my characters into complex people, not just cliches on a page.
You’ve published a number of short stories—we’ve published a few of them ourselves! Are you done now that you have a novel? What do you think of short fiction as a form?
I will never be done with short stories! I love the form because I feel like it gives me a chance to play with a voice that might be tedious over the course of a novel. I don’t think I could write a whole novel about the events around, say, “Rough Night in Little Toke,” [from the anthology Hanzai Japan] no more than I could shorten The Big Rewind into 7,000 words.
Short stories also give me a chance to experiment with genres—scifi, some rural gothic fantasy, I’ve even written a goofy romance or two.
Does short fiction feel like your day job writing—find the character, find the telling detail—or is something else going on entirely?
Wow, you’re really making me think here! Short fiction, for me, is more like a bolt of lightning. A novel is planned out, but a short story will come to me out of nowhere—a character’s voice, a scene, a small object. Then I just have to sit down and write it!
The Big Rewind is your first novel…or is it? Any practice novels before this one?
Several! I had written a pulpy crime novel in short stories before I started grad school, which was rejected by every agent in the business and rightfully so, although several of the stories were published on their own. A second novel got a few full manuscript requests from agents, but nothing came of that one. I sent a third one out to a few agents, but by that time, had moved on to other projects.
But it’s funny; I was going back through notebooks of unfinished novels I had written while I was living in NYC, and I could see the threads of characters that would become Jett, Catch and others. Totally unintentional.
I thought Jett was great. I was impressed by how contemporary she was, like when she thinks she’s being propositioned by her boss, she considers it because he’s not so bad-looking and money is tight. Of course, she’s also a romantic, with her Boyfriend Box and crush on Sid. Where did she come from? SHE’S YOU, ISN’T SHE?!?
I wish! No, Jett is much cooler than I am. I did instill her with my love of Warren Zevon and the fact that I worked second shift at a temp agency in New York City, as well as our deep crushes on Adam Scott from Parks & Recreation.
How about poor lost KitKat, or the other characters? Drawn from life?
There’s one I’ll admit to and that’s Jett’s friend Natalie. I went to college with a girl just like her, and she would say very deep things like, “I’m telling you, Libby, the whole world comes down to Dantes and Randals” and then take a drag off her Marlboro & flip another page of Nylon. She was so cool.
What about Cinderella, who is sure to be a controversial figure in more politically uh annoying circles? What was the inspiration behind her?
Cinderella could very easily be a character in a fourth verse of Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers Guns & Money.” It would have been very easy to make her “boo-hoo, poor girl has to be a stripper,” but I realized that was patronizing and cliched. I wanted to give her agency, but I also wanted to give her a real—however misguided—reason for doing what she does. My goal has always been to make my characters multi-faceted and complicated, so she, like all good villains, thinks her actions are justified.
As for who she was inspired by, I guess she’s as much my own contradictory feminism as she is a model of an extremely privileged sort of empowerment. “Oh, I’m not a real stripper like those other sluts, I’m doing it for grad work, so it’s different and better.” That’s why it was so important for me to write Gloria as someone who likes her job and her customers, rather than just being some unlucky dame who has to take her clothes off for money.
What came first, the hipster or the bloodspray? The Big Rewind could have been an ultracontemporary slice of life novel that kids in the midwest would hug to themselves (on their phablets, natch) as they dream of moving to Bushwick, Brooklyn—a neighborhood that was Cracktown USA when I was a kid in Brooklyn, by the way. And then poor KitKat had to be beaten to death with her own marble rolling pin, and now we’re in a crime novel. How was the book initially conceptualized?
I have written nasty, brutal stories since I graduated college, so naturally, there had to be a murder and quick. But the hipster stuff did come first; I wrote the scene as it came to me and then it occurred to me “what if I put a murder in there…?” Then I thought of using a mix tape as a clue, and it went from there.
Across the course of your average day of commuting to work, having lunch, Netflix ‘n chillin’ with your husband, etc. how many times do you think “What if I put a murder in there…?”
At least once a day is a safe bet.
What was the route to publication for The Big Rewind? These days the story often goes “short stories, then small press, then a big book” or “lauded as genius in MFA, given giant advance.” What did you do?
Despite my best efforts of being lauded as a genius in my MFA program, I was not.
My road to publication was a very traditional one. I wrote the book, queried an agent (Jim McCarthy at Dystel & Goderich) signed with him, he sent it to Chelsey Emmelhainz at William Morrow, she signed me. I had about ten years of publishing short fiction and essays behind me, which helped too.
Did your MFA program help at all, either in the sense of making connections or improving your writing to the point that The Big Rewind, as opposed to your other books, was the one to be published?
I met my best friend/writing partner Matthew in my MFA program, as well as a bunch of really wonderful friends who I still treasure, but writing-wise, I don’t think that my program had any positive impact.
That’s a fairly diplomatic answer. So, in the MFA vc NYC turf rumble, you’re NYC?
Oh heck yes.
Other than gaining the attention of The Big Click, what’s your strategy for becoming a rich and famous crime writer?
Really, just keep writing kick-ass novels. I’m never content to just sit back. I’ve got a couple new projects in the works, and I’m anxious to get back to them!!!
And they are…?
A lady never writes and tells… they’re both mysteries, but I’m actually toying around with a southern gothic ghost story. Completely off-genre for me, but it sort of just came to me over a binge-read of Eric Powell’s The Goon and some Tom Waits records. I love crumbling old cemeteries and crow mythology and the veil between the worlds. I’d love to write something like that.