Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Missing Women Turn Up in Novels

© Morgan M Miller
Today's guest blog is by Holly Goddard Jones whose debut novel The Next Time You See Me was published this month.  Her short stories have appeared in The Kenyon ReviewThe Southern ReviewThe Gettysburg ReviewThe Hudson ReviewEpoch, and elsewhere, and they’ve been anthologized in two volumes of New Stories from the South (2007 and 2008) and in Best American Mystery Stories 2008. 

When I began The Next Time You See Me in early 2008, it didn’t once occur to me that I was tapping into what would become a literary zeitgeist: the “missing woman” crime thriller. The big books in the U.S. that year were the Twilight series, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, though you could perhaps see a ripple of things to come with the success of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy, which debuted in English in 2008 with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Titled originally in Swedish as Män som hatar kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women, one of the book’s several plot strands concerned the mystery of a girl who has been missing, and presumed dead, for nearly 40 years.

Fast-forward to today and missing woman books seem to be everywhere. Or maybe what I’m experiencing is what my husband and I used to call the Grey Pontiac Grand Am Effect: once you drive one, it seems like everyone is driving one. While The Next Time You See Me was being copyedited, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl raced to the top of the bestsellers lists. Noting some of the broad similarities between that book and my as-of-yet-unpublished novel—missing 30-something woman, examination of life in a forgotten corner of middle America—I was nervous to delve in, but I did, and I had the best possible experience: I loved the book, but I also thought it was so different from The Next Time You See Me that the two didn’t really bear a meaningful comparison.

That’s funny in retrospect. After Flynn generously blurbed Next Time, I couldn’t escape the comparison—from reviewers, readers, even my friends. “Missing woman” wasn’t just a plot detail; it was the book’s hook. Soon enough I started getting my own blurb requests, and two of them right out of the gates were for novels about missing women. I was torn. On the one hand, trends seem to drive the contemporary book industry, and if a link to a wildly successful book puts Next Time into a curious reader’s hands, excellent. On the other, I’m a literary writer with an earnest collection of short stories and a college teaching job. I never meant to get on any bandwagon.

That we all honed in on a missing woman mystery as interesting subject matter isn’t surprising, given the emphasis the media (especially America’s 24-hour news programs and entertainment magazines) place on missing women—and the more horrifying the women’s ordeals, the better. But who am I too judge? They’re only satiating voracious appetites like mine.

I’ve followed each of the stories with horror and fascination: Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway, Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard. There’s even a quasi-technical term for the sociological trend: missing white woman syndrome. Without engaging my web browser I can conjure up the frozen-in-time likenesses of an array of pretty, smiling, sometimes doomed faces, and that’s part of the fascination, too: those yearbook photos and photos in front of the Christmas tree that remind us so much of our own. The picture of Jaycee Dugard from just before her disappearance—long straight blond hair drawn back with a headband, bangs, awkwardly large adult front teeth? I know that girl. I was that girl.

I can’t speak for Gillian Flynn or any of the other writers who’ve made contributions to the missing woman sub-genre, but here’s what seems to be true for me as a writer: I start with what fascinates, horrifies, and obsesses me—sometimes to my shame—and then I dig in. I question it. I see what happens if I subvert some of the expected details of the familiar narrative, and in that way I hope that I’m wringing some meaning out of what might otherwise be an empty exercise in schadenfreude. My novel’s missing woman, Ronnie Eastman, disappears in the early 90s, before the internet and 24-hour cable news and celebrity concern-trolls such as Nancy Grace. And though she is a white woman—I wonder now if it would have been braver and better for me to make another choice—she’s also a person whom most of the people in her small southern town have written off as wild, irredeemable, and deserving of whatever bad card she’s dealt. The what-if questions driving this story for me from the start were: What if a woman goes missing, and she’s so on the fringe of society that almost no one thinks to miss her? How might that woman have touched the lives of those around her, without their even realizing it?

My book about a missing woman is as much about the people she left behind as Ronnie herself, and that’s true in life, as well: a missing woman is a vessel for our societal prejudices and preoccupations. She shows us what we value—youth, and a particular kind of middle class, mostly white beauty—and what we despise, or fear. There’s the perpetrator (and a set of corresponding frozen-in-time likenesses, with mug shots replacing yearbook photos) to despise and fear, of course, but also the woman herself. What did she do to invite her fate? A female victim of violence is a paradox: sacred, entitled to protection and reverence, but also (unlike a child) culpable. No wonder we can’t stop fixing our gaze on her.

More information about Holly Goddard Jones can be found on her website.  She can also be contacted on Facebook and also on Twitter @goddardjones

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