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Local novelist Leah Stewart discusses Memphis, mysteries and "Body of a Girl," her first book.

The fundamental question 

Three months into covering the Memphis police beat, Olivia Dale finds herself standing over the wrecked body of a young woman in Tom Lee Park. The victim is bound at the wrists, naked from the waist down, marked with tire tracks and curled into a position that suggests she knew the car was coming. Olivia Dale's investigation into the murder, the subject of Leah Stewart's debut novel Body of a Girl, reveals how much the victim (Allison Avery) and reporter have in common, from physical appearance to night life. Convinced that this is not a random act, Olivia finds herself consumed in Allison's lifestyle in an effort to understand the crime, taking chances, some even life-threatening.

Leah Stewart is a former associate editor at Doubletake, and her short fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review and other publications. Now writing full-time, she lives just outside Chapel Hill.

The Independent: Why Memphis? What about the city, for you, makes it such a snug fit for Body of a Girl?

Leah Stewart: It was an instinctive rather than a deliberate choice. I interned at The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis daily, in the summer of 1993. I was 19, and it was the first time I had ever lived alone. There were a number of murders in Memphis that summer, and I knew from another intern--a woman who sometimes covered the police beat--the grisly details that weren't making it in the paper. I also knew from her that a woman had been raped across the street from where I lived. So I lived in a constant, low-level state of fear--I didn't like to be out after dark, I would get scared running in the park in the evening. And since that's what the book is largely about, I naturally set it there.

The novel grew out of a short story I wrote the next year at Vanderbilt in an independent study with A. Manette Ansay. She pointed out that I almost never spent any time with landscape in my stories and told me to begin one with a description of place. I wrote a description of Mud Island, which found its way into the novel. I don't know why I chose the Memphis landscape out of the many places I've lived. I think Memphis impressed itself upon me as a city with personality. And as I wrote the book, more and more I wanted the city to be one of the characters. I find it difficult to articulate what exactly I find compelling about it without resorting to the clichés of tourism. It has something to do with the music, the sense of history, the element of danger, the pride the people take in their city, and the local characters, like the guy who used to run for mayor every year claiming to be a space alien. It has something to do with Elvis, Al Green--a kind of acceptance of larger-than-life people and events and emotions as part of the norm.

The novel tracks the investigation of the murder of a young woman (Allison Avery) although it's more about the reporter's (Olivia Dale) reaction and subsequent behavior. Did Olivia's behavior unfold as you went along or did you start with the idea of her being consumed by the story?

For me the story has always been about Olivia's reactions and behavior. That's why I wrote the novel, because I wanted to explore the kind of response I have to reading about a murder like this through the eyes of someone who would confront it every day. The struggle for me was to keep the investigation plot moving. I knew early on that Olivia would identify with Allison Avery and that she would become consumed with the dead girl's life to the point of neglecting her own. I knew also that she had to move from thinking she knows everyone's secrets to realizing that she doesn't entirely know herself. The specifics of her behavior evolved as I wrote, and as I saw that the story demanded that she take greater and greater risks.

You've been an associate editor at Doubletake and a reader for Ploughshares. Have you seen the point of view of these affect your own writing in any way? Do you think it helped you work with your own editor?

I don't think so, at least not consciously. Reading submissions can remind you what you should avoid doing in your own work. A lot of submissions fell into categories, like the male fantasy stories in which beautiful women inexplicably want to have sex with the narrator, no strings attached, or the female equivalent, in which the protagonist, a middle-aged white woman, travels to a Latin American country to have a fling with a tango dancer.

Have you been surprised by being labeled, here and there, a mystery writer?

Because I didn't set out to write a mystery--meaning mystery with a capital M, the genre--I was surprised to find people classifying the book as one. And I've been surprised by the strength of people's need to classify it--is it a mystery? is it literary?--because to me it's just a novel--a story about a woman confronting the fears that she had about crime, men, city life and her own weaknesses. It seems strange to me that it's necessary to apply the label. Why should the subject matter of this book define me as a writer? It's not as though a writer who writes a novel about a circus is then a circus writer.

I take exception to the assumption that the book is therefore formulaic and at best competently written. I've had people say to me, "I don't normally read this kind of thing, but I liked your book." So I'm glad if I can overcome that assumption, but it's frustrating that I have to.

I read an essay in a literary magazine this month by a critic complaining about literary novelists turning to genre--citing, among his examples, Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn. The critic was suggesting that a novelist only makes this choice out of commercial considerations and a fear of risk-taking. That's the kind of implication I resent. I chose a reporter as narrator because I was familiar with the newspaper world. I chose to write about crime because it was a subject I wanted to explore. I chose the murder story line because it seemed the best way to push my narrator to confront her own fears and desires.

The response to that element of the book has made me think about how unfortunate the contemporary division between commercial fiction and literary fiction is. All books regardless of subject matter should be judged by the same criteria--the quality of the prose, the character development, the narrative, and whether they're compelling and emotionally resonant.

When people categorically dismiss genre books, they often do so by calling them "plot-driven." What they mean by that is that these books put the emphasis on plot, usually a formulaic plot, to the exclusion of character, theme and the basic virtue of good writing. Not only is that sometimes unfair, it's been translated into an idea that plot is not a virtue. But people respond to story. All writing is an attempt to impose structure on experience in order to render it meaningful. And the basic component of that structure is plot.

So what's wrong with plot? I see no reason why a book can't be both "plot-driven" and "character-driven." The Great Gatsby, which is compelling in large part because of its characters, is also plot-driven, from the rather contrived coincidence of Nick living next door to Gatsby, to Gatsby's affair with Daisy, to the car crash that leads to Gatsby's murder. A strong plot no more renders a book lowbrow and commercial than the absence of a plot makes a book art.

Plenty of fiction--carefully crafted sentences and themes aside--bores you to death with its lack of forward motion. When I was in graduate school, we spent a lot of time discussing the motivations of each other's characters, but we never discussed what might make someone want to keep reading the story. And whatever the answer is--prose, plot, character, theme, or hopefully all of the above--isn't that the fundamental question? EndBlock

  • Local novelist Leah Stewart discusses Memphis, mysteries and "Body of a Girl," her first book.

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